The war for digital hearts and minds

There’s been a bit of a turf war going on in the advertising/marketing/PR world for several years now, and it’s not really showing any signs of resolving itself.

It’s the war for digital hearts and minds and it’s being fought across all the major social media networks. From the familiar landscapes of Twitter and Facebook, through to the newer territories of Microsoft’s Socl, the revitalised MySpace and on into Pintererst, Instagram and beyond.

In business communications circles, everyone acts like they have the right to own social media: advertising agencies, marketing consultancies and PR firms. And it doesn’t stop there – there are digital creative agencies, interactive marketing houses and tech-based SEO companies. All claiming they have the secret sauce that will help a brand cover itself in digital glory.

But it’s the PR world that has the strongest claim, in my opinion.

Before you pull a muscle shouting “he would say that, wouldn’t he” let me explain why I think that.

One of the key functions of the PR industry is to intercede with the media on behalf of its clients. The media is changing, indeed has already changed, due to the impact of the internet and social media. The PR industry is changing with it.

Circulation figures for all newspapers are lower, as are advertising revenues from their print-based activities. The BBC, the Financial Times and the Guardian are just three of the UK’s major broadcast and print names that are investing heavily in their digital output. Some titles, including Newsweek, have turned their backs on print altogether.

This move to more digital-friendly output from mainstream news providers is more than a passing phase. The traditional reliance on the written word has decreased as video and graphics are increasingly sought out by readers and viewers, and this is a tide that is unlikely to turn any time soon. As a result, the PR industry has had to learn how to craft its clients’ messages and brand stories into formats that meet the needs of these changed media requirements.

But my reasons go deeper than simply the ability to update story formats.

Despite the many different views on what constitutes successful social media engagement, there is perhaps one aspect that everyone agrees on, and that is that social media requires a more discursive approach to corporate communications. The audience you reach via Facebook, for example, is not receptive to one-way communications, they will expect brands to listen as much (more, even) than they talk.

Get that bit wrong, and the rest of whatever it is you’re up to won’t matter a jot.

This is why, in my opinion, if any of the marketing disciplines can claim any form of ownership of social media outreach, it has to be PR.

PR is the only branch, if I can call it that, of the marketing tree, and I realise I probably can’t call it that, where conversation is one of the fundamental building blocks of the whole discipline.

In the event of a crisis that has dragged you into the media spotlight, who is it that businesses turn to for help? It’s not the ad agency. It’s not the web designer. It’s not the marketing consultant. It’s the PR people.

Why..? PR people have no magic powers, after all. Well, it’s because the PR world knows how to listen, how and when to talk, how to avoid making things worse by lying, and how to think on its feet.

Nowhere are those traits more welcome than in the world of social media.

Sean Fleming, Head of Digital at Nexus Communications